For a sector that has a real and verifiable impact on so many of the historical and contemporary challenges facing society, philanthropy may be one of the least researched and understood fields in contemporary life. It is trapped in an environment of undocumented clichés and misperceptions, due in part to dysfunctional tensions that remain between academia and practitioner experts.
Why teach philanthropy?
Nearly ten years ago, as a philanthropy and public affairs professional, living in France, I decided that there was a need for a course in philanthropy to promote the growth of civic engagement and encourage the development and professionalization of philanthropy in France and in Europe. I proposed a course, New Philanthropy and Social Investment, to the ESSEC Masters of Business Administration. This course went on to be the starting point for France’s only chair in philanthropy, currently housed at ESSEC Business School.
Since 2010, I have created and taught a selection of masters-level courses in this field at Sciences Po in Paris. The longer I teach citizen engagement and philanthropy, purposely linked together, the stronger is my conviction that doing so is essential, especially in the context of the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ and growing awareness that new models are needed for an equitable and sustainable future.
Students take the courses to find out not only about philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and how social investment tools work, but about alternative ways to lead their lives, and how they might have an impact on the looming social and environmental challenges we all face.
Why study philanthropy?
Students take the courses to find out not only about philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and how social investment tools work, but about alternative ways to lead their lives, and how they might have an impact on the looming social and environmental challenges we all face. The fact that most of the students who take my courses represent dozens of nationalities including the UK, Morocco, Korea, India, Brazil, US, Italy, Slovakia, Switzerland, Ukraine as well as France, show that this appetite is global.
They want to explore the shifting roles of individuals and citizens, business and the state; the legitimacy of philanthropy; tax relief and equity; and who should be setting the agenda (global, regional, local) for providing public goods.
Most of them have not had any previous academic exposure to philanthropy or other forms of private action for public good. They are seldom aware of the dynamic scope of the third sector in the global economy and our lives. Their perception of philanthropy is largely based on misconception and mistrust.
In general, they say they would like to make a difference, but are not clear on the best way to do so. The objective of the courses is to broaden their vision and present options and, hopefully, inspiration on how to become effectively engaged citizens.
The first and continuing obstacle to teaching philanthropy is not demand, but the availability of appropriate academic research in recognized disciplines and evidence about the scope of the field and its impact, particularly outside the US.
Why isn’t there more of it?
The first and continuing obstacle to teaching philanthropy is not demand, but the availability of appropriate academic research in recognized disciplines and evidence about the scope of the field and its impact, particularly outside the US. In 2008, a small group of donors and philanthropy professionals launched the European Philanthropy Learning and Research Initiative to commission a study to map the status of research and teaching in Europe and to make recommendations to address the situation without much up-take, originally, from European foundations.
Since that time, several new academic centres and initiatives in the philanthropy sector have been established. The problem is that they tend to focus, with some noble exceptions, on the ‘how to and management’ rather than on some of the basic ethical, sociological and evidence-based research issues that would justify and define philanthropy as a critical element of democracy.
Two recent books note that philanthropy deserves more academic attention than it has so far received and research is beginning to pay attention to that claim.
Perhaps the tide is turning and we are seeing a rise in the kind of scholarship the sector needs and deserves.